Behind the show-stopping and eclectic looks in FOX’s latest smash hit series Empire is the show’s costume visionary of Season 1, Rita McGhee. Her costume design history stems back to Sunday’s Best, The Martin Show, Let’s Stay Together, and many more. This Emmy-nominated designer reminds us of a fairy godmother with the way she not only brings a character front and center through fashion, but in the way she tells a story through all of the characters. Although she did not work on the second season of Empire, she has established a fashionable foundation for all the characters that no one will never forget.
Cliché: What ignited your passion to become involved in costume design?
Rita McGhee: I was always fascinated with the story that clothes tell and how you can create a story through wardrobe, color, fit, fabric, and style. I was always fascinated with the way it speaks for itself, and that there’s a history behind clothes.
How do you go about representing each character’s unique style in the costumes you prepare for them?
Well, I find out what the actor needs, who the character is, and who is the actor portraying that character. I get notes from the actor and I look at their body type and I look at what works for them. I get their age, what they like, what they don’t like, and then I go from there and pick different colors, shapes, and patterns—for instance, colors that represent strength, or something that could represent sorrow. I’ll do a pattern, usually a very strong pattern, with a great design or a great print on it. I also look at things that are distracting, depending on what the scene is, so I’m very intentional about the background and research what it is. I also get my notes from my actors so we can work together. It’s a collaborative effort of filmmaking, of making it work for the actors, so that it can be seen and heard without saying anything.
Who was your favorite character to dress throughout Season 1 and why?
They were all fun to dress. All of them were interesting and all of them told a story. I liked that I was able to create a story with all of the characters and that it was a different story they were telling in the wardrobe. Everyone was my favorite. Cookie Lyon was my favorite because she wore furs and she was louder. Anika Calhoun was my favorite because she was strong and bold. Rhonda Lyon was my favorite because she was soft and bold, and then she was sexy and carefree. Then Jamal Lyon was my favorite because he was understated. Each person, each character, each actor, was a different personality. I liked dressing all of them.
Is it ever challenging when it comes to brainstorming the right look for a character?
It’s always challenging! My motto is, “Challenges make you a champion.” It’s about being in life: being around people; being in a relationship with my family, my loved ones, and my friends; looking at real life situations. So many different things inspire me: music, weather, colors, other movies, films, and books. I have a good team; I work with my sister. To keep the creative flow going, I listen to my actors and I listen to the notes. I think resting, too, is important.
What are you working on next?
Right now, I’m working on Zoe Ever After starring Brandy. Brandy just came off of Broadway in Chicago, so this project for her is with BET. It’s going to be filled with fashion and love and great stories about family and togetherness and working things through, so I’m very excited about that. In the future, I just want to work on great projects and continue to make a difference in the work that I do, and to work on really good projects that people are affected by.
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Rita McGhee Interview: Photographed by Mike Gonzalez